I was at a conference a few weeks ago. Because of my interest in eschatology, that is, the doctrine of the end times, I went to one seminar about hell. The young man was presenting a summary of his dissertation which happened to deal with eternal punishment.
His thesis was interesting. He was looking at various interpretations of biblical texts dealing with judgment and eternal punishment and how we can understand the eternal condition of the unsaved given the variety of pictures given to us in Scripture. I thought he presented an interesting hypothesis and defended it quite well.
When he opened a time for questions, several good ideas and challenges were raised and he answered each inquiry very well. But then came the zinger.
This person asked why the presenter was talking about the various biblical portrayals of eternal punishment as metaphors. The question caught me completely off-guard. What else would those pictures be? After all, a metaphor paints a picture of reality but does not necessarily deny the reality. In other words, if I say that God is a rock, I am not denying that God is God. I am simply saying that some of the characteristics of a rock remind me of the way God is.
The presenter answered the question well. But the questioner persisted. “Are you saying that there is not literal fire and screaming, and torture, and darkness?”
Once again, the young presenter replied well, explaining that these are depictions of the horrors of being separated from God but not necessarily hard and fast literal representations of a particular place. After all, he explained, how can a place be both utterly dark and have fire? Good response.
Undaunted, the questioner replied that in the Bible, God tells us what he wants us to know and that God obviously wanted us to know that this (fire, screaming, etc.) was what hell really was.
I confess that I didn’t hear many “hell” sermons growing up. But I also know that Reformed theology in general is quite reticent to say much about hell and eternal punishment, leaving it to God’s eternal wisdom. One Reformed theologian even says we should all hope hell is empty. This is what I grew up with.
But it occurred to me that perhaps Rob Bell had a very different background; one with a pastor like the questioner. The questioner seemed not only to want to insist on eternal, active, tortuous suffering of the reprobate, but also seemed to delight in this knowledge. Yikes! Perhaps Rob's reading of Scripture is a bit more understandable.